Phil Parma In Magnolia
No director was a bigger help to Philip Seymour Hoffman than Paul Thomas Anderson, who cast the actor in five of his six features (all except for There Will Be Blood). In Boogie Nights, one of Hoffman’s earliest breakthroughs, he brought shades of sorrow to his small role as a meek porn filmmaker. With Punch-Drunk Love, Hoffman flipped 180 degrees and played a royally pissed-off supervisor of a sex phone line.
However, it is his performance in Magnolia, small but nuanced, that leaves a bigger impression. He plays one of the few decent souls in Anderson’s three-hour opus about family, neglect and misplaced love. As Phil Parma, the gentle nurse tending to a dying Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), Hoffman stands as Partridge’s last resort to connect him with his long-lost son, Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise).
In one of the film’s most devastating pieces of acting, Hoffman nervously calls the hotline of Mackey’s company and pleads with them to find him. Here, the actor moves away from some of the lunacy and perversity of his earlier roles and delivers a plea that is both impassioned and human. It’s one of the only times when he was one of the calmest presences onscreen, but Hoffman finds courage and humanity in the person on the other end to ensure this connection happens.
Few actors could have sold this indulgent line with the conviction and vulnerability that Hoffman did:
“I know this sounds silly and I know that I might sound ridiculous, like this is the scene in the movie where the guy’s trying to get a hold of the long lost son, you know. But this is that scene. And I think they have those scenes in movies because they’re true, because they really happen.”
He may be a small part of an enormous ensemble, but with that role, Hoffman proved he was no small actor.